Issue #103, 3/9/2008
Family Court Philosopher
One of the noblest human instincts is to care for someone else. When we are strong, or at least think we are, it is natural for us to want to give protection to those who are weaker than us. It feels good to care for children or rescue someone from an imminent threat. What's the point of living if we don't help others?
But protection comes at a price, to both the protector and the protectee. Whenever you care for someone, you run the risk that they will become addicted to your patronage and will stop looking out for themselves. Protection tends to isolate people from the effects of their actions. It can encourage them to be lazy and careless, even abusive and resentful.
If you are using a significant portion of your resources to protect someone, you would expect them to be grateful, but this isn't usually the case. Anyone who has raised adolescents knows it: They don't appreciate what you have done for them; they resent it.
Teenagers certainly want things from you, like money, and they will take whatever you give them, but it isn't true that the more you give, the more they will appreciate you. The opposite is more likely: The more you give, the more they hate you.
Abusive relationships happen not when the victim is stingy with their attention but when they give too much. In relationships, people only abuse the ones who have been good to them.
This is a hard concept to grasp because it is counterintuitive. You would expect appreciation from the person you have helped, but this only happens when your help is an unusual event. If your help becomes a pattern, then the person you are supporting becomes used to it and comes to expect your protection. This is when the relationship often turns abusive, because whatever protection you give is never going to be enough.
If someone needs your protection, it implicitly means they are weak. Any help you give them is a blow to their ego, even if they actively seek and accept your help. Being cared for is inherently humiliating, because it means a person is not "man" enough to care for himself. It's a festering wound to the psyche that often expresses itself in deviant ways.
Let's say a husband loses his job, for whatever reason, and his wife starts working doubly hard to support them both. Is the husband grateful? Probably not. He stays home and drinks beer and gets angrier and angrier. When the wife comes home, she thinks he'll have the house cleaned and dinner ready, but instead she has to suffer his tirades.
The wife has inadvertently fallen into the protection trap. Under her protection, the husband is less inclined to look for work because he knows he'll still be fed. Yet, not having a job is also humiliating, driving down his private self-esteem. Lower self-esteem leads to private desperation and greater violence.
When one person protects another, there is always a tendency for the protectee to overestimate the power of the protector. The protector has set herself up as the mediator between her client and the outside world. As client's self-confidence plummets, he expects the mediator to do more and more to protect him, to resolve all his conflicts with the outside world. When a cop gives him a speeding ticket, he takes it out on the mediator. If the mediator is supporting him in any substantial way, he eventually expects her to take care of everything.
The protector essentially becomes a god, which is an enviable position only at first. The little known curse of gods is that they can never do enough for their clients. If people start relying on your intervention, then they soon turn to you for everything, even things you aren't capable of fixing. Instead of tending their fields, they pray to you to provide for them. If you fail to heed their prayers or you reach the limit of your powers, then the people will curse you. Instead of loving you for what you have done for them, they hate you for what you haven't done.
In the long run, you often get in more trouble by intervening than if you had never helped at all.
If you step into a crisis as a god, magically rescuing people, you run the risk of disrupting the local ecology. It's like setting up a bird feeder in your back yard; eventually, the birds come to depend on it and stop seeking natural sources of food. Your artificial protection may breed birds who are dependent on you, who are not grateful for what you do but who are extremely upset if you ever stop feeding them. It may also breed birds who are not as lean and healthy as those who fend for themselves.
Protection inherently intrudes on the natural boundaries between individuals. If I am going to feed you, clothe you and look after your health, I am probably not going to do as good a job of it as you can yourself, because you have a better knowledge of your own needs. Because I will always be an outsider to your system, I am a poor substitute for self-regulation.
If I am caring for you, I am placing an artificial buffer between you and the outside world. The problems of this are twofold: First, this buffer is very expensive for me to maintain, detracting from more productive things I could do with my resources. Secondly, it may be inhibiting your own development by isolating you from real demands of the world.
It is scary to face the world alone, so if we offer protection to someone, they will probably take it. This doesn't mean the protection is good for them. Sometimes, people make their best decisions when they are pressed to the wall. Only then, when they know they have no safety net, are they willing to make the uncomfortable compromises that are best for their long-term well-being.
That's not to say that you should never protect or rescue anyone. We all need protection from time to time. We all get stuck in binds where we need a little help from our friends. Children certainly can't get by without protection, and each of us, no matter strong we feel right, could find ourselves in desperate straits at any time. We can't just walk away from someone who has just been in a terrible car accident and say, "Take care of yourself." We are obligated to intervene.
You just have to understand that protection is a powerful drug, like morphine, and you can't use it lightly. You want to save the patient's life and ease unnecessary pain, but you don't want to trigger addiction. Protection should always be seen as a deliberate, calculated and temporary choice, not an ongoing obligation.
It is good to help the people you care about, but it can only be a temporary fix or the protection could end up being a prison for both of you.
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